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User Experience Fundamentals: 4 Key Elements of the UX Design Process

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Many people have heard the term “user experience” but not everyone knows what this means. User experience (UX) is rapidly growing and revolutionizing how people interact with the world around them. UX is why Google is so easy to use and how Facebook knows what article to suggest to you next. It’s why the internet evolved from Geocities homepages with blinking “Under Construction” signs to the sophisticated interfaces we use every day. User experience is practiced by UX designers — but also product managers, product designers, entrepreneurs, startups, and forward-thinking organizations.

But what does UX actually mean? Let’s break it down.

For starters, if you have ever purchased a product or benefitted from a service, you are a user. When you interact with a product, service, or company, you are having an experience. Ultimately, most companies want you to have a good experience using their product or services. In order to understand what makes an experience good, we need to define what that means from the perspective of the user.

What makes an experience “good” hinges on whether it was successful at solving a real problem or provided users with actual value. This is the core distinction between art and design: Whereas art can be aesthetically pleasing, good design must have utility. Beauty alone isn’t enough. Thus, a good user experience is one that enables the user’s interaction to be effective.

For example, let’s say you wanted to find a restaurant for dinner with friends. You know that several people in the group are vegetarians, so you’d like to find a convenient location where everyone has options. In this situation, you might use a restaurant recommendation platform to narrow down options, identify some potential locations, and share them with friends. The conditions for success in this situation would be an app that enables you to do exactly that. Anything more is considered “delight” and anything less is problematic.

The Four Key Elements of the UX DESIGN Process

User experience is often referred to as “the science behind design.” What is meant by “science” here is the rigorous methods that comprise the UX process and provide the human insights and hard data to support and validate product design decisions.

It’s important to know that the UX process can be used as both a path (go from start to finish) or as a toolkit (select the tool you need), depending on the project goals and timeline. Regardless of how you apply the process, there are a few critical UX design basics that create the foundation for a successful user experience. We’ll outline these UX fundamentals below, along with specific tools or methods that can be used for prototyping.

1. Behavior

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: People are complex creatures. When designing for people, it’s important to understand how they think and what behaviors they’re engaging in to satisfy their current needs or solve their existing problem. Before there was Yelp to find restaurants, what did people do? They asked their friends for recommendations or used an online search engine (or something else entirely — let’s not forget that there was life before the internet).

UX designers work with people by learning about their habits and goals, identifying needs and constraints, and aligning with existing behaviors to create solutions that are easy to use (efficient) and solve a real problem (effective).

Some UX methods and tools used to learn about user behaviors:

  • User interviews are one of the most important ways that UX designers uncover information. User interviews are usually focused on the qualitative data, which is information that can’t be measured but that is rich in emotional detail.
  • customer journey map is a visual document that details a user’s interactions with a company or product and how they feel about each interaction. This map tells a story about user’s end-to-end experience and how successful the product design was from the user’s perspective.
  • task analysis is used to analyze how users perform tasks in order to achieve a goal. Through observation, designers learn about the user’s current process (and work-arounds if no solution exists). For instance, observing a user file their taxes using analog methods (paper, mail) can inform a UX designer how they might go about that same task online. This is a great way to learn about existing pain points that could be improved.
  • Designers are always documentinganalyzing, and communicating user insights and data with their team to keep everyone on the same page. Designers might document a user interview using a screen-sharing tool that captures how a user moves through a website to complete a task. Then, they might analyze that information by creating an affinity map with their team to identify common trends or patterns in the collected data. Finally, they might create a user persona to bring this user data to life and communicate findings with their team.

2. Strategy

User experience is a human-centered process, which means that designers don’t prioritize business goals over people. The best design solution should ultimately align both the business and customer goals to create an effective and usable solution to a real problem. Strategy in UX is also about understanding where an existing product or process can be improved and communicating this effectively to internal teams and external users through responsive design. Fundamentally, UX is about design empathy, which means translating user needs into actionable solutions.

One of the first steps in UX design thinking is user research. In order to solve a problem, a designer first needs to observe and understand what’s happening from the user’s perspective. Asking questions is a great way to uncover a lot of information about user needs and frustrations. These user insights can then be translated into design solutions that solve the user’s problem efficiently and effectively.

Some great questions to ask when strategizing:

  • Who is our user?
  • What is the user’s motivation or goal?
  • How does this make them feel?
  • Is the process clear?
  • What do they expect when they click this?
  • Are you assuming something about users? How could you test this assumption?
  • Are you thinking of the user’s wants and needs, or your own?
  • What do we want users to do? How are we helping them do it?

Strategy is then translated into interaction design through artifacts such as user flows (how a user moves through a system to achieve a goal), wireframes (schematics that show how a digital interface will look and function), and high-fidelity prototypes (a working model of a design) that can be tested with users.

3. Usability

Good design is ultimately determined by usability. If a particular design element does not help the user solve a problem, or makes solving a problem extremely challenging, it is not a good design. If the user is confused or doesn’t know where to go, or you designed it for you? Also not a good design. Because design is about functionality, usability is more important than aesthetics. While designers talk a lot about designing for “delight,” the best designs are usable. Designers can add delight through sophisticated animations, friendly language, and unexpected surprises that anticipate users’ needs. However, if the design is not usable, all these delightful details don’t matter. This may seem like a simple practice in theory, but that’s not always the case.

Humans are complex, and usability is deeply connected with psychology and behavior. Digital product design inherited a lot of its behaviors from things we used in our analog life, such as buttons and sliders. Thus, people come to expect things to behave a certain way, even if there aren’t the same physical or technical constraints.

Usability is about creating products that anyone can use, especially if they have a disability or impairment. Usability is also about accessibility, which means that physical constraints or disabilities don’t prohibit or impede someone’s use of a product or service. Good design is about helping humans.

How can you determine whether something’s usable and accessible? There are a ton of resources dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive designs from the ground up. Some of the best include:

  • Nielsen Norman Group’s 10 Usability Heuristics
  • W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines
  • Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Toolkit
  • Uxdesign.cc’s Diversity and Design Series
  • Airbnb’s Another Lens Research Tool

4. Validation

Finally, validation is a critical piece of the UX process. Ideally products need to be tested with users before they are deployed to the public. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with companies that are eager to launch their products out into the world. The UX process emphasizes testing with real users early and often in order to ensure that the design solves the right problem.

Solving the right problem is the most important task that UX designers face. However, testing often throughout the process also means that you’ll catch mistakes sooner and be able to adjust without losing users. When things don’t work or are difficult to use, most people give up.

Investing in UX design is one way companies can stay competitive in the market while making the most of their time and resources. Validation is proof that you have successfully solved a problem for your user. Another way to think about testing is as an experiment. When making decisions, it’s important to ask: What are my assumptions about the user? About this solution? How might we test these assumptions?

There are many ways to validate an idea or assumption, depending on the amount of time and money you can invest in the project. The important thing to remember with validation is that it removes the guesswork from the design process. Here are some of the most common strategies used to validate ideas through user research:

  • Ideas can be tested very early in the process by putting out a smokescreen test. A smokescreen could be a landing page with a call to action (e.g., Sign up for my newsletter!) to test whether users want your product.
  • If you’re already in the design stage, you can validate your design by A/B testing two versions of the same page. This would allow you to see if one way of solving a problem is more successful than another.
  • Finally, you might want to create a clickable or coded prototype to see how users would navigate the system as you get closer to launch.

What happens once a product goes live? UX designers are constantly iterating, which is the process of continuously testing throughout a product’s life cycle. In fact, the UX process of learning about user behavior through research, translating insights into actionable strategies, and testing new products and features is designed to be repeated as often as needed. Building accessible, usable, and beautiful products is an ongoing evolution.

UX DESIGN BASICS at General Assembly

There are many ways to learn UX fundamentals at General Assembly. For the most in-depth experience, our User Experience Design Immersive (UXDI) introduces students to every step of the process while providing opportunities to apply skills directly through project-based learning with real clients. The 10-week-long Immersive is best for career-changers who want to transform their professional life. Our part-time User Experience Design (UXD) program, available on campus or online, is a great way to gain exposure to UX tools, techniques, and industry trends, and the eight-week Visual Design course covers a high-level overview of the practice and how it relates to visual design. You’ll also learn how UX impacts the product life cycle in the part-time Product Management course. If you’re just looking to learn more about UX and opportunities in the field, there are many workshops and events (such as the UX 101 Bootcamp) that can introduce you to the core concepts and best practices.

Ask a Question About Our Design Programs

Meet Our Expert

Katharine Hargreaves is a UX strategist, educator, and facilitator working at the intersection of social impact design and education. She teaches the User Experience Design Immersive at GA’s Los Angeles campus. Katharine believes that human-centered design heals the world, and she’s dedicated to building tools and systems that empower people everywhere to be problem-solvers.

Katharine Hargreaves, User Experience Design Immersive Instructor, GA Los Angeles

Why Design Thinking Matters

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Design thinking at work

Design thinking isn’t just about the visual outcome of a product. Rather, it’s a method of creatively and practically solving problems that keeps the user top of mind. Understanding the user’s wants and needs allows us to make more accurate decisions during the inspiration, production, and iteration phases of building a product. The outcome, hopefully, is intuitive products and services that actually improve users’ lives.

I spoke with Maya Weinstein, Sr. Designer at IBM Watson, about her thoughts on the design thinking method.

In your own words, what is IBM design thinking?

Design thinking has existed in some form for the past 20 years. What makes IBM Design Thinking unique is scale. IBM is a massive company and this is the first time design thinking is being implemented at a company of this size with this degree of training. We have an entire division, the IBM Design Education, whose sole focus is to train the entirety of IBM on the practice of Design Thinking. By training engineers, product managers, marketers, and executives on how to think like a designer, we are able to bring design thinking to a mass corporate level. This is design thinking in a company at scale.

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From Electronic DJ to Systems Architect for NASA: How One Alum is Crafting Her Dream Career

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General Assembly alumni Jade
Jade Johnson is a recent grad of User Experience Design Immersive at General Assembly’s Los Angeles campus, where she met “a crew of like-minded thinkers.” After graduating from GA, she briefly worked for NASA as a systems architect. Now, she is living in Berlin and pursuing her career in UX Design. Jade’s love for user experience has helped her build a rewarding career around her artist lifestyle.
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CEO as Chief Experience Officer

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ux tools

In today’s changing business landscape, user experience (UX) is quickly becoming a key differentiator allowing brands to cut through the noise and create a unique value proposition for their customers. It makes sense; what could be more valuable to a customer than having a great experience?

Within major corporations, if addressed at all, UX has traditionally been siloed within product and design teams instead of being treated as a company-wide initiative. UX is vital not only for product teams, but also for marketing, sales, customer service, and even HR. (Employees are users too–EX as we call it at GA!)

When examining some of the standout brands that have adopted a more holistic strategy around user experience, the results are strikingly clear. Almost every one of today’s most valuable companies is run by a CEO who puts user experience first–Chief Experience Officers. Let’s look at a few examples:

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5 Reasons You Should Become a UX Designer

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whyux-blog-picjumboEvery day, more CEOs and business leaders are realizing the importance of a product’s design and user experience. UX is no longer an ambiguous acronym or secondary business concern, but a key piece of a product’s success. With so many useful apps and products on the market, companies can no longer risk having a poor user experience or uninspiring design. Users demand great experiences, and it’s user experience designers who help products meet these high expectations.

User experience designers are positioned for success in today’s job market. They get to work in a growing and intellectually stimulating field, playing a key part in shaping a product’s success across a variety of industries — from finance to education to to e-commerce and more. Read below to explore why UX design may just be the perfect career for you.

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Capitalizing on Errors: The Best 404 Pages on the Web

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While the 404 page signifies error, it doesn’t have to kill the mood. The design of a 404 page is an important piece of the user experience puzzle, but often overlooked in the creation process. To avoid the frustration of a user hitting this roadblock, there are a few key things you can do to promote an engaging and branded experience:

  • Identify the issue
  • Speak clearly
  • Include popular links or a search bar for a way out
  • Make contact information visible
  • Make it fun!

Here are 10 entertaining 404 pages worth breaking a url for:

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How to Find a UX Design Job: Chapter 2

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Rain is a GA UX Design Immersive graduate, full time UX designer, and fan of good clean designs. Her background is in architecture and product design. In her spare time she is either at the gym or coming up with new app ideas. In this blog she tells her story of finding a job and her insights to the London UX field. You can read her first chapter here.

So now everything is in place and order, you put yourself out there and have the basics to get people interested. What’s next?

Setting expectations: I went into the job market knowing UX is a booming market with huge demand and very little supply. My expectations were sky high. I expected high volume phone calls and interviews and thought I would find a job within 2-3 weeks. So let’s bring it back to reality a little. Yes, there is demand, and yes, there is short supply but also, I had very little real life experience and most companies simply don’t have the time to teach you.

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6 UX Strategies to Make Your Site More User-Friendly

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User Experience is focused heavily on trying to understand context, activities and people to better solve their problems. If we know and understand the people who are using our product, we’ll be able to design a better product for them. Below are six tried and true strategies for ensuring your website is user friendly, taken from our Front Row video with UX Consultant, Julie Blitzer.

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How to Find a UX Design Job: Chapter 1

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Rain is a recent GA UX Design Immersive graduate, full time UX designer, and fan of good clean designs. Her background is in architecture and product design. In her spare time she is either at the gym or coming up with new app ideas. In this blog series, she shares her story of finding a job and her insights on the London UX field.

The first part of my UX journey was done. I was a qualified UX designer with limited experience, a limited portfolio of work, and a CV that still read ‘Interior designer’. Before I jumped into getting a job or even an interview, there was a lot of prep work I had to do to even be considered. This is chapter 1 of 3 in which I will explain the process I went through to find a job in UX.

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UX: Oh, The Things You’ll Do

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Ari is a Senior UX professional in Denver, CO and former instructor at General Assembly in Sydney. In this blog, Ari lays out the wide range of ways UX skills can be applied in a professional career.

I often get the feeling that the notion of UX has been pigeon-holed into someone who looks at a website or mobile app and can spontaneously make it easier to use. “If you have half an hour, can you UX this thing for me?” “Sure. I’ll whip out my wand and I’m gonna UX the hell out of it!” I used to have a UX wand on my desk for just that purpose.
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